This essay appeared in the Atlantic this week.
Growing Up Is Hard to Do: Forced into Adulthood by an Aging Parent
I approached my 30th birthday with the typical trepidation associated with the occasion: I lamented all I hadn’t accomplished; I surveyed my face for crevices. Midnight was marked with friends and cupcakes. I fielded the requisite phone calls and flowers at work, and had dinner with 15 friends who braved an impending blizzard to celebrate. Then I went home and waited to feel grown up and responsible overnight.
I didn’t. It took four days.
My father had recently begun a consulting project in Cleveland, away from my mother in Boston and his three adult kids in New York and Washington, D.C. I was concerned about him being all alone in a dingy apartment, shoveling spoonfuls of stale cereal into his mouth.
“Calm down,” my older brother told me when I relayed my apprehensions. Dad was set up in a nice corporate apartment, he loves to cook, and he’d be flying home on the weekends, so my hyperbolic scenario wasn’t likely to become a reality. And so I stopped worrying about him and went back to worrying about myself.
Three days after my birthday, my dad vomited blood at work. The next day, he was hospitalized. Alone in Cleveland. Hundreds of miles from anyone we knew.
I was aimlessly strolling the aisles of Loehmanns when I got the call that Saturday afternoon. “What are you doing?” my mom asked as I pawed a selection of handbags. “Just killing time before dinner with some friends,” I answered distractedly, presuming this to be a routine check-in. Then she got to the point: “Your father’s in the hospital.”
The doctor had assured her the bleeding ulcers weren’t too serious, but said someone should come be with him. “I’ll go,” I told her without hesitation. It simply made the most sense: she’d recently started a new job, my sister was in college, my brother had just visited Cleveland the week before and has a wife and kid to worry about; my only commitments were a brunch I could cancel, some laundry I was happy to put off doing, and a job with a boss I hoped would be understanding. I booked a flight out for the first thing in the morning.
At 30, my mom was responsible for two young lives other than hers and her husband’s. At 30, my main obligation was purchasing toilet paper on time, and I had a very happy roommate indeed on the rare occasions I accomplished this. I’ve always been treated like the baby of the family, even though my sister is eight years my junior. My brother is the archetypal responsible oldest sibling, but even my sister has long adopted a maturity far beyond her years; both of them, along with my parents, tend to baby me. Perhaps this dates back to the day I was born, when my parents got their first glimpse of my tiny body. “My goodness, she’s as small as a bean!” they declared, and thus, “Beany” was born — a nickname that sticks three decades later, and one that I seem to have lived up to with my diminutive 90-pound frame. Even today, my dad does my taxes, my brother helps me move, my sister drives me to the mall, my mom administers backrubs when I’m sick. I can’t say I offer much beyond jokes and wisecracks in return. I’ve become adept at taking, not giving.
I went straight from the airport to the hospital. The sight of him in a flimsy hospital gown, weak and pale, eyes half open, fresh gray stubble on his cheeks negating the effect of his regularly-dyed dark hair, made me shudder, but I didn’t let on how I felt beyond a slight furrowing of my brow. For once, this wasn’t about me. I got to work, tracking down his doctor to determine where we were at and what still needed to be done. For the next few days, I dutifully monitored my father’s blood transfusion, helped him up whenever he went to the bathroom, followed him when they wheeled him to X-rays and MRIs, seasoned his soups and made him tea, led him on a daily constitutional around the floor, chased after nurses to get his medicines on time. I took notes and tried to sound informed whenever doctors came in, even though the medical jargon went over my head. I answered phone calls from concerned family and friends. Whenever he napped, which was most of the time, I sat idly by his bed, playing solitaire on my phone. A two-day stint melted into three, then five.
The idea of dad being alone in the hospital was incomprehensible to me, so I logged 12-hour days in uncomfortable plastic chairs apparently designed to deter lengthy visitation. But in the next bed lay an elderly man with lung cancer and a horrific cough who had family stop by for 10 minutes a day, if at all. “I love you,” they called out as they left. Then why don’t you stay long enough to take off your coat? I wondered. On his side of the curtain, my father proudly announced to anyone who would listen, “She flew in from New York to be with me.” “You’re a good daughter,” they all told me — people at the hospital, friends, the clerk at the front desk of the apartment building. I didn’t know what to make of the statements. Isn’t this what kids are supposed to do for their parents? Isn’t this what my family did for me?
In the evenings, long after visiting hours ended, I drove myself wearily back to his apartment. This was the part I’d been most terrified about. While my friends had been rushing to get their licenses at 16, I’d pushed it off for years — and then I failed my road test three times. I’m rarely behind a wheel, but now I was forced by circumstance to chauffeur myself around an unfamiliar place. I avoided alluding to my driving phobia that week because I didn’t want to worry my dad. But in true fatherly form, even chained to a hospital bed by an IV stand, he fired up his laptop to Google non-highway directions to the apartment, researched which route would be the fastest and most direct, and carefully wrote everything down on the back of a tea-stained hospital menu. Then he painstakingly explained the area to me, referenced various landmarks I’d pass along the way, told me where the nearest grocery stores and restaurants were, and sent me off.
I surprised myself. Not only did I never get lost that week (how could I, when he had so thoughtfully included reverse directions), but I was impressed by how comfortable I became behind the wheel. I perfected the art of parking within the lines; when cleaning snow off the car, I deduced by trial and error that it’s best to push ice away from you (not onto you); I marveled as the defogger actually did what it was supposed to; I learned you should drive slowly when it’s snowing — things most people discover when they’re half my age.
“I feel like I’ve aged 20 years in one week,” I texted a friend one night. Suddenly I was living in the suburbs, driving myself around, caring for an ailing parent, and gushing over unfathomably cheap groceries. For the first time in my life I was responsible for the well-being of someone other than myself, and the magnitude of that fact was staggering. One night I sat alone in the apartment — which was still scattered with used coffee mugs and recently laundered undershirts, signs of his pseudo-bachelor lifestyle — and wept. It finally dawned on me that I really wasn’t a kid anymore. This illness may not have been too severe, but as my parents advanced in age, who knew what lay ahead? Would I ever be able to care for them as selflessly as they had cared for me? Was anything ever going to be the same?
I texted the one person I know who would understand the unfamiliar emotions that left me so unsettled. “Being a grown-up sucks. I don’t think I like it,” I wrote to my brother. “No one does, Beany,” he replied. “No one does.”
When my dad was finally discharged, I changed my flight one last time to stay through the weekend and settle him back into his routine. I cleaned his apartment, did laundry, cooked enough food to last a few days, and picked up his prescriptions. I made a list of what pills to take and when, and, not finding any tape in his room, affixed my makeshift chart to a wall with a Band-Aid. I arranged with his building to have someone dig out his car whenever it snowed. When he insisted on going back to work the next day, I insisted on driving him, not sure if the medications would make him drowsy behind the wheel. I pulled right up to the entrance. “Do you have your lunch with you?” I asked. “Yes, Beany,” he said with a chuckle and held it up to show me. Then I waited and watched until he walked through the front door. I now know what mothers feel like sending their kids off to the first day of school.
I was nervous about leaving on Sunday, but my usefulness was now obsolete. I kept my composure by rattling off last-minute instructions. “Don’t forget about the follow-up appointments I made for you, I put all the numbers and addresses in your phone,” I said. “And make sure you go to sleep at a reasonable hour tonight.” He’s 62 years old and he’s been taking care of himself since before you were born, I tried to remind myself. While I happily surrendered the driver’s seat back to him that morning, slipping back to our old roles wasn’t proving to be as simple.
As he dropped me off, he leaned over and kissed me on my forehead. “You are truly my angel, Beany. I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he said simply.
“I don’t either,” I responded breezily with a laugh. Then I turned and walked away quickly before he could see the tears filling up in my eyes.